Luxury fashion still caters to movie stars, high-powered businesswomen and ladies who lunch, but designers are starting to show interest in that generation's daughters.
Day 5 of fashion week and familiar runway themes like military tailoring, old-school rock'n'roll, and Hollywood Golden Age glam are showing tweaks designed to appeal to younger eyes: the double-breasted coat in shiny patent leather, tweed suits infused with metallics and leather substituted in silhouettes that used to be silk.
"New customers are getting into luxury fashion in a way they weren't before the recession," said Ed Jay, senior vice president of American Express Business Insights.
Long-time clients who bought full-ticket designer clothes before the economy soured have proven loyal, but they aren't buying as much as they used to, Jay said. But the luxury market is seeing new interest among Gen Y fashionistas, who didn't used to buy much high-end but are now starting to, spurred in part by the ease of online purchases. "Newcomers don't spend as much per ticket, but there are more of them," he said.
The Row, the collection designed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, which previewed Monday (local time), seemed to speak directly to women (especially the younger set) who live the sort of uptown life that requires clothes for special occasions, but who aren't interested in traditional suits or evening wear.
Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said that even the fur turning up on a lot of runways could motivate younger shoppers. "We are seeing a lot of mink, a lot of textural mink. You thought of mink before as your grandmother's but this is through a new lens... mink is something a lot of women don't have."
Some of the fur being shown is faux, but whether younger shoppers - especially given the mainstreaming of veganism and animal rights - will buy real fur-accented pieces as a new trend remains to be seen.
But Downing said the way fur is being shown now is often as part of a coat, sweater, or skirt, rather than an entire fur coat. Downing said it was a youthful way of wearing it, flattering and interesting. "Fur continues to modernize into a sportswear item," he said.
And while designers hope their new collections will inspire spending by shoppers young and old, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Fashion Week is an increasingly profitable enterprise for the city. At an appearance with Diane von Furstenberg yesterday, Bloomberg announced that the twice-yearly shows are expected to generate an economic impact of US$865 million for the city in 2012.
The number, calculated by the city's Economic Development Corporation, is up from an estimated US$773 million in 2007.
"We are the fashion capital of the world. The buzz it creates helps underscore our city's reputation as a cutting-edge capital of fashion, home to more than double the number of fashion companies in Paris," Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg and von Furstenberg, who is president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, used their appearance at a fashion incubator for fledgling designers to highlight a number of ongoing city efforts to support an industry that employs 5.7 percent of the city's workforce and provides nearly $2 billion in yearly city tax revenue.
Bulk manufacturing has shifted out of the city's garment district to low-cost overseas venues, but Bloomberg said programs do exist to train and support fashion entrepreneurs. "If you're going to make a million white T-shirts, it's hard to see how that is going to stay here," he said. But "when it gets to hands-on customer service, real quality, that's where New York can star, because intellectual capital is our raison d'etre."
And Von Furstenberg said the city's manufacturing industry is not entirely a lost cause. "Some of the manufacturing is actually coming back as the cost of goods over there is getting higher," she said. "I've expanded my sample room here. We are manufacturing here. Things change."
Donna Karan's runway show Monday was all woman - even in top hats and tails. The opening look for her signature label was a gray-and-black pinstripe jacket with a crisp white taffeta bodysuit - Karan's signature piece - that was fashioned to look like a button-down shirt.
She also offered long coats with strong shoulders and lapel collars, and a riding jacket paired with pinstripe mohair pants.
Skirts and dresses were mostly long with sharp-cut knife pleats for movement. Tops were mostly slim and tailored with nothing frilly, not even when she added sparkle.
When she got to the finale, however, Karan was fully in touch with her feminine side, sending down a red-hot scarlet-colored, stretch-satin evening gown.
Carolina Herrera's fall collection highlighted what's likely to be a trend for next season: styles that put the focus on a woman's face thanks to high, interesting necklines.
No decollete and not a lot of leg, either. Attention was drawn upward as one model wore a hand-painted organza scarf with her navy wool suit with black grosgrain detail, and another wore a tweed suit with a fox-fur collar. There was a lovely lilac cashmere kaleidoscope-print scarf that complemented a cropped purple-wool jacket and slim silk mikado pant.
Herrera went with a more architectural silhouette than a frilly one, but as a seasoned supplier of chic clothes, she moves easily between the two looks. The finale ballgown in bright pink was worn off the shoulder with a folded fabric bodice. A key daytime outfit - something her luxury-seeking customers count on her for - was a navy knit turtleneck with a broadtail-fur (flat lambswool) front and an indigo-colored pencil skirt.
She featured a series of abstract prints on her eveningwear, which made a statement on the catwalk that might be hard to appreciate in tighter quarters. But, alas, the Herrera woman lives in a world of grand entrances. Herrera loyalist Renee Zellweger once again filled her spot in the front row.